On Oct. 2, The Center for the Arts welcomed The Builders Association for a two night performance of “Sontag: Reborn,” directed by Marianne Weems. Founded in 1994, The Builders Association is a New York-based performance and media company, using innovative ways to implement digital media on stage and create unique performances.
“Sontag: Reborn” is an adaptation by Moe Angelos, the show’s sole performer, of Susan Sontag’s journals. It follows the life of the world-renowned figure from her teens to the beginning of fame. Using multiple layers of digital media “Sontag: Reborn” transforms her words into an eccentric piece that contrasts with the methods of classic theater.
Angelos, however, is the shining star of this performance. While a projection of Angelos as the old Sontag is always present on the stage to observe and interact with Angelos herself as the young Sontag, “Sontag: Reborn” is one of few pieces that fully manages to expose the deepest and the most private sides of an icon to its audience. Angelos owns the stage with her confidence, voice and subtle physical movements; it’s a reminder that there’s more to theater than what’s on Broadway.
The Argus had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Angelos about her journey through the adaptation, her performance, and the rebirth of an icon.
The Argus: Why Sontag? What inspired you to adapt this?
Moe Angelos: It’s a very good question. I think theatrically we don’t often see a portrait of a woman just thinking with a very vivid mind and a really strong drive toward intellect. So for that I was very drawn to it. Also, Susan Sontag was on the board of directors of The Builders Association many years ago, at the beginning of the company, and she was a friend of Marianne [Weem, artistic director of The Builders Association and director of “Sontag: Reborn”] and a colleague. They worked on a piece together that ultimately was never performed for complicated reasons. But they were friends and Susan Sontag was a mentor to Marianne. So I think there was a bit of that too. And the diaries themselves, the journals, are a goldmine. There is just so much going on there. Because of course any person has many thoughts in their lifetime, in a day even, and to try to capture that life of a mind was very challenging and tantalizing for all of us, to try to make that visible in some small way, because of course you cannot do it entirely.
A: Since you used a lot of digital media and projections on the screens, when you were adapting this, did you imagine what it would look like or was the final setting different than what you initially imagined?
MA: I guess a little of both because when I began the project, Marianne and I talked about it a lot and I knew that I was going to do the script. The Builders were going to make this production, so I had in my mind that media is a character in the show. So that character needs something to do. I thought a lot about it and I made little suggestions in the script but Austin [Switser], the video designer, and Dan [Dobson], the sound designer, in conjunction with Laura [Mroczkowski], the lighting designer and of course Marianne, made choices and took it in other directions. Of course I have never seen the show live, I have looked at video representations of it and it is so much more beautiful than anything that was in my mind. I mean I would say things like, ‘We see a cigarette burning in video.’ But I didn’t know where that was going to be or what it would look like; in my mind it was on a screen somewhere. It wasn’t this beautiful sort of gossamer image that’s in front of me, the live performer. That was not in my mind!
A: How was the process of recording the old Sontag? Was it difficult or challenging? Because she should be constantly talking or making contact…
MA: Or listening! Oh yeah, that was tricky! What we did was I recorded young Sontag lines in roughly as close as I could get it, the timing. I recorded the lines that I actually say on stage, then we put them in a little digital recorder and I had an earbud. So I sat there for very long takes in old Sontag drag and this thing was playing in my ear and I was just listening, because there are many times in the show where she, the old lady version, interjects. So you have to kind of know the timing on that. I used this digital recording, I was sitting for a very long time smoking or looking at a journal or a magazine or something, and then I would say a line. And then I would listen some more and then say the next line. We had very long takes sometimes because the whole digital track is an hour and twenty minutes long or something. It’s as long as the show. So that’s a long time. We tried to do it in one take but we couldn’t, like I flubbed it or something went wrong or whatever.
A: Were there any scenes that you really liked or are really special to you?
MA: The scenes where I’m talking to the recording of myself are more fun, because there is much more very direct dynamic and we are playing with each other. She, the old version of Sontag, is very consistent in her performance as I like to say, but Emma [the production assistant] is riding how she interjects with me, ’cause she can slow her down and speed her up and fire the queue. So those are really fun, especially; there are a few moments when I, as the performer, acknowledge that she is there and that’s particularly fun to me, because it’s also sort of saying to audience I’m not really Susan Sontag, I’m not really here, I know what’s going on like when I give the finger to myself [the old Sontag projected on screen]. This could never happen of course because this is an older self, looking back on the younger self. Can the younger self see the older self? I guess the younger can in this theatrical context.
A: I assume you only used two of the three journals in the performance. So how did you decide where to end?
MA: Yes! Very good question! Well, I decided to end at the point that she steps into her public persona as Susan Sontag. The part of her life before she became a public figure is much more interesting to me that after. We look at all her writing and see, here’s how her career went, although she was a very private person. So we didn’t know too much about her personal life. So there’s still some interest there, but I was really interested in what makes a young person decide? What makes us all decide this is what I’m going to do; I’m going to make myself that. And she was so willful in that activity of constructing herself. That was the interesting part to me so I quit right about when “Notes on Camp” came out, which is only one year or so into the second volume of journals. And then her life really changes because she has access and people recognize her. She has access to incredible people. Actually I didn’t include this, sadly, because the theater-loving part of myself really wished to but it didn’t work, when she takes that trip to London at the very end, even then she has more recognition and therefore people want to talk to her or let her into their worlds and she goes to [English theater director] Peter Brook. Peter Brook’s company in rehearsing in London with [Polish theater director Jerzy] Grotowski. So Grotowski is there, some of his actors, which are Cieślak and some his troops are working with Peter Brook’s actors and Peter Brook is making “Marat/Sade” at that point, and so there is a very interesting dynamic, she is in the room watching their rehearsal and kind of reporting how the rehearsal room goes and it’s totally fascinating to a theater nerd like me. But it didn’t have a place in the show, but because of who she was and her determination, she could get herself into these places where other artists were working and they would allow her to see their process, which is amazing.
A: This is a solo performance completely, to some extent. How do you feel going on stage knowing that you are going to be the only person there? Is it empowering? Is it frightening? Or how does it feel different than when there are other people on stage?
MA: Oh my God! It’s terrifying. I have to sort of put it out of my mind and not think about it because last night I was joking about this after the show that at some point, every night in the show or every time I’m performing the show, I’m talking away and I think, “Oh my God! I’m still talking.” I can’t believe it. Isn’t anyone else going to say anything? So there is a certain marathon aspect to it that is daunting and I just say a little prayer, even though I’m not given to prayer, I’m not a religious person. But I just say, “Oh my gosh! Please! Whatever strength I have in me, get me through this.”
My mental focus has to be very sharp. I really have to work and concentrate on what is the next thing I’m going to say. It’s a lot of words and a lot of big words and a lot of embedded complicated ideas. It’s not dramatic speech. It’s not like, “Hey! How are you doing? I’m good, how are you? What did you do today?” It’s not casual speech. It’s not conversational. It’s theory. There’s a quite a lot of theory in there too. So to make that, so that the audience has a hope of understanding, it’s a lot of work. I have to be very careful in my speech and that takes more work that my daily normal speech.
A: Did you ever think that you would have another person as the old Sontag? Or was this initially thought of as a solo performance?
MA: No. Well, we did talk about that. We talked about getting someone else to do it and even the idea of having that person be live on stage, and then that seemed wrong. That would be very tricky. You’d have to do that very carefully, because that sort of is her, in a certain way. Because the image of her as an older woman with the classic white streak of hair, which is in my mind when I’m thinking about Susan Sontag, that’s what I think of. So to embody that, I think, as a live person is very difficult, hard to pull off, but as a film, you know she was such a cinephile too; it sort of elevates it, lifts it up and gives you a lot of room for interpretation.
A: What is your next step? Would you like to work on more journals or you want to go to some other areas?
MA: Well, The Builders are working on a new show, which is in completely other direction. It’s another one of our sort of bigger shows that is an adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz.” We have just sort of candy store of fantasy to go into. I’m very much looking forward to that. We’ve done some little workshops and we’ve been playing around with ideas and Dan is assembling a heavy metal band for “The Wizard of Oz,” which I’m super stoked about. We’re going to have a band on stage playing heavy metal because we’re looking at the movie version, not the books, and it’s a musical.
So that’s many more different directions than Sontag, and it is an adaption too, because we’re taking the book somewhat, histories of Oz and the movie, and we’re trying to adapt that, or translating it into a fantastical, amazing piece of theater. We often start with an existing work, literary work, or something to use as a jumping off point. So adaptation I guess at this point is part of the work but I don’t think I’m too interested in doing solo work. It’s very lonesome. It’s lonesome up there and also the beauty of theater is dynamic, is seeing two people talk to each other or many people talk to each other. That is the living thing that is so wonderful about the theater.
A: If you could ask Susan Sontag a question now, what would it be?
MA: Wow! If I could ask her a question, I guess it would be, “Do you forgive me?” I said that as a joke but I sort of mean it too. I think I would ask her was there anything left to do in her life? If she could have more time to live what would she do? Because she loved living even though she was quite a tortured person at times but oh my God, she loved being alive even in that tortured state. I guess I would ask her, “If you had one more day, what would you do?”
This interview was edited for length.